Tree Care Apprenticeship Idea Excites the Industry

Supporters hope the initiative will grow the workforce, create a pathway for career growth and develop tree care’s professionalism and reputation

After proceeding in fits and starts, an arborist apprenticeship program is taking off on the state and now the national level.

The National Guidelines for Apprenticeship Standards proposed by TCIA were approved by the U.S. Department of Labor in summer 2018, and the first tree care companies to serve as sponsors of the TCIA-initiated apprenticeship program are expected to have employees enter the program as early as this spring.

These will follow in the footsteps of state programs that have been launched successfully in Wisconsin and Maryland, in collaboration with those states’ community college systems.

In adopting a long-held practice in many trades, the apprenticeship program combines working and learning in an environment that is largely hands-on, on-the-job. It involves the passing of skills from an experienced mentor to the apprentice, utilizing the approved standards.

“It’s probably not going to solve immediate labor shortages, but it will set the company up to be more stable for the long term, and also to create a good, recognized training program that people will take advantage of,” says Bob Rouse, chief program officer at TCIA. “It raises the visibility of the company and raises the bar (of quality) a bit.”

Workforce development is a major issue, and industry leaders believe that the apprenticeship program will help bring more workers into the industry as well as be of benefit to both the industry and individuals in a variety of ways.

“It promotes it (tree care) as a skilled trade,” says August Hoppe, president and owner of Hoppe Tree Service in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and a proponent of apprenticeship in that state. He estimates there are more than 40 apprentices in the state, with seven employers involved, including some from both the private and municipal sectors.

Though not as far along as Wisconsin, Maryland also has launched an apprenticeship program that has been well received.

While those states moved apprenticeship forward, the initiative has bogged down in some others when an education provider wasn’t found, which is one of the reasons TCIA decided to take a different direction with apprenticeship. Working with state and federal departments of labor, it developed standards and an educational program based on its Tree Care Academy program.

Workers at many companies receive training, but the apprenticeship program formalizes that training.

Better training means a more efficient, safer workforce, and continues to professionalize the industry. Apprenticeship also not only assures quality training for the employee, but includes a schedule of skill-level benchmarks and raises, as well as credentialing that can benefit the employee in his or her career. Those involved in the program also say their companies are recognizing additional benefits in reputation, morale and results.

Outreach is an important part of raising awareness of industry apprenticeship, says August Hoppe. Shown here are City of Milwaukee and private-industry arborist apprentices who teamed up at a local park in Milwaukee to host a field day to promote the program. Photo courtesy of August Hoppe.

“It’s a joint venture,” Rouse says. “The apprentice signs a contract with the company, and the company agrees to train the apprentice for three years. When the apprentice graduates, they’ll have a certificate from the Department of Labor that basically says they are now an arborist journeyworker.”

The agreement may be terminated by either party at any time.

The apprenticeship programs run for three years and are sponsored by individual tree care companies that register for approval in their state, following the TCIA guidelines listed with each state by the Department of Labor. State offices of apprenticeship and TCIA representatives will work to guide companies through the rules.

Components of the program include on-the-job training plus related instruction.
When identifying a related-instruction provider, employers may use TCIA’s
related-instruction program, complete with journeyworker guidebooks, training manuals and assessment forms. Apprentices enrolled in TCIA’s related-instruction
program also participate in an annual training course to assess competency. Some employers also may choose to work with their local community college if an arborist program is available. Upon completion of the apprenticeship program, the apprentice receives a Certificate of Completion of Apprenticeship issued by the U.S. Department of Labor.”

In some cases, grant money might be available for supporting underserved employees, and some federal contracts may require the presence of an arborist journeyworker, so in some instances there might be an additional business benefit as well.

“There are apprenticeships in other industries,” including utility line workers, Rouse says, “but apprenticeships in tree and landscape companies is something new. The National Association of Landscape Professionals is doing the same thing with landscaping apprenticeships. That’s new also.”

State-level successes

Under the apprenticeship program in Milwaukee, which has a strong
community-college system that is keyed into workforce development, the apprentices and employers form a partnership of sorts, combining work with formal learning. During some of their work time, the employees are paid to go to school, where they learn the trade at a deeper level than might be typical at some tree care companies. They attend for a week at a time, four weeks annually for three years. That 440 hours of classroom and 6,000 hours of on-the-job training totals 6,440 hours. Many of the apprentices are expected to complete the program and receive their arborist journeyworker credentials this summer.

An example of the contract that arborist apprentices sign in Wisconsin. The contract is between the employer, the apprentice and the state of Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of August Hoppe.

“I’m getting tremendous feedback from our apprentices on what they’re learning here,” says Hoppe, co-chair of the Wisconsin Apprenticeship Advisory Committee and a member of TCIA’s Board of Directors. His 45-employee company includes seven apprentices and counting, and he’s observed that it’s been good for the individuals as well as veteran workers. “They are getting training, seeing the commitment from their companies, making the commitment themselves and seeing it as a career. It’s created new energy within the company.

“(Seasoned employees) see the enthusiasm that the apprentices bring to the job site, and it’s given them a newfound energy to teach and show their skills. It gets them wanting to learn new skills, too, and not be stuck in their old ways.”

The Wisconsin Arborist Apprenticeship program has an advisory committee. Employer representatives on the committee include, from left, August Hoppe, co-chair; Jon Welch, Crawford Tree and Landscape; Ben Reince, Wachtel Tree Science; and Randy Krouse, co-chair, City of Milwaukee. Courtesy of August Hoppe.

In Maryland, Eric Jewell, business-
operations manager for Ballard Enterprises, is a proponent of the apprenticeship initiative and also an instructor at the Community College of Baltimore County for the program. His company employs three of the seven apprentices registered in the state.

“We are fully invested in this program,” he says. “We see the benefits, and we’re throwing a lot at it.”

The industry is also working with local public-school systems to push students into the pipeline to create future arborists.

“They do it in other industries already, and this has us going in the right direction right now,” he says.

All those in the current class of apprentices are incumbent workers. He describes them as sharp young men (so far, they are all male) who have indicated they are gaining a deeper understanding of the industry.

“They knew tree work but didn’t know how the standards are written, why they’re written and how they come into play,” he says. “Half of them didn’t know the difference between ISA and TCIA.”

They also have learned safer work techniques and gained a better respect and understanding for the equipment they use, which is another benefit of the job. In learning better skills, they are learning better safety, Jewell says, repeating a mantra that Ballard tries to repeat to its workers.

“Remember who you’re working for,” Jewell says. “It’s not yourself, and it’s not for me. You’re working to provide for your family, and how will you provide for them when you’re not coming home?”

A pathway to growth

Among the earliest adopters will be companies from New Hampshire and Colorado, whose leaders say they are just waiting for the final administrative and regulative pieces to fall into place, including the presentation of official paperwork, which will include contracts signing apprentices into the program and the one-on-one relationships with journey workers who will mentor them.

In New Hampshire, Dan Mello, president of Seacoast Tree Care, says he is just waiting to see the final paperwork and present it to a young employee he feels is a good fit for the position.

“We have one candidate who is currently pretty interested, and I haven’t started recruiting heavily yet,” Mello says.

Mello’s North Hampton, N.H.-based company services coastal areas from southern Maine through New Hampshire and into Massachusetts. It already has an extensive training program for all employees, including skills assessment.

As Mello sees it, the apprenticeship program will help him attract employees and influence them to view the job in a different way.

“The stigma of tree care is that it’s not a career,” he says. “This gives me a pathway to show to an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old where they can move from apprentice to journey worker. This solidifies the trade – the career – and shows a pathway to growth.

“A lot of people don’t understand the money they can make in tree care,” Mello adds. “They see it as a cool job, working outdoors, but some of our people make a very good living. This gives a young person a career option if he or she doesn’t want to go to college, likes to work outside and likes to work with their hands.”

In Colorado, meanwhile, Boulder-based Taddiken Tree Company has a couple of its employees interested in joining the apprenticeship program, says Josh Morin, company president.

Katie Harper, recruiting specialist with Davey Tree, and a colleague brought a Davey PHC/spray truck to Community College of Baltimore County for a Maryland apprenticeship program recruiting event in January 2018.

“We’re pushing pretty hard for it,” says Morin, part of a group of tree care professionals who championed the program over the past two years. “We believe in it. We also think it’s important to walk the walk.”

The program will benefit both the industry and the individual, Morin says, starting with standardizing and formalizing the process to becoming a journeyworker arborist. It also provides “robust training and a career-path plan for a field arborist,” he adds.

“It provides a benefit to the employee, because we now have a credential that is federally recognized and is transferable,” Morin says. “If they have to leave the job or move, they can take it with them, and their next employer can, with reasonable confidence, know what that person has gone through and the competence they’ve displayed in the past.

“The employer, as the sponsor of the apprenticeship, has a level of flexibility in training,” he adds, noting that, while there are certain standard requirements, “I can also require maybe X hours on a grapple-
truck, or mini-skidder steering competency and testing. We can teach them additional skills, as long as we’re in line with federal guidelines.

“It’s a win-win,” Morin says.

It’s also part of a workforce shift that some see happening in many blue- and green-collar fields, as more young people forego the college route and accompanying crushing debt in favor of jobs that allow them to start their careers sooner, in industries where there’s a need for more skilled labor.

Department of Labor officials have been “incredibly responsive,” Morin says, because they want to see the program succeed. “Not everybody is best served by a Bachelor of Science or Master of Science degree,” Morin says. “There’s a need for different types of training and educational formats.”

He adds that credentialing and apprenticeship programs also will help the image of the industry.

“It will help professionalize tree care,” Morin says, “and reinforce that we’re not just guys operating out of the back of a pickup truck.”

“The big thing is that this shows a pathway to growth,” Mello notes. “It tells them they can make a three-year investment and, at the end, they’ve created a nice job for themselves.”

In addition to salary, Mello’s employees receive health care, dental and life insurance and retirement plans. From the time he founded his business 15 years ago, Mello says, one of the most enjoyable things for him has been watching young employees finance their first car, buy houses and start families as a result of the financial stability they’ve earned.

“When I started, I wanted to do right by them,” he says. “Seeing that come to fruition is one of the things I’m really proud of, and I’m humbled by it.”

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